Even if you are not that interested in contemporary art, it is likely you have heard of Hans Ulrich Obrist. The Swiss polymath, who has been the director of the Serpentine Gallery in London since 2005, has helped to define the modern idea of what a curator is. In fact, the entire craze for ‘curated’ experience may be partly due to the popularity, accessibility and visibility of HUO.
He has written 360 books, curated hundreds of exhibitions around the world including projects at Musee d’art Moderne in Paris and at Art Basel. He has collaborated with huge artists from Phillippe Parreno, Carsten Holler and Christian Boltanski, and is a contributing editor at Artforum and 032c. Having this amount of creative energy takes organisation. He is notorious for organising his life around a number of habits.
“I'm interested always in rituals. For a long time, I made all these experiments with sleeping. I didn't want to sleep when I was a teenager at all. I just thought it was a waste of time. Then, I did the Da Vinci rule, which is three hours awake and fifteen minutes of sleep. That's how I wrote my first books. It’s very efficient but it's not socially compatible if you have an office job, because after three hours you do need to sleep for fifteen minutes. It physically worked and biologically worked, but it doesn't socially,” he explains over coffee at hotel bar in Kensington.
After a chance meeting with German chronobiologist and sleep researcher Till Roenneberg, he changed his approach. “I go running in the morning when I wake up at 6, read a little bit of Édouard Glissant every morning like a ritual, and the newspaper. And then, I go to the office,” he enthuses. Yet that a full day was not enough to keep up with his work. He created the idea of a night assistant. “There are all these people who don't want to work during the day, and they're actually forced by society. It would be nice to create the position for someone who is a night person who works for me, more on the books and the research.”
Other habits include starting and ending each day by having breakfast and dinner with his partner, artist Koo Jeong-A. The day is filled with meetings, often in and around the Serpentine in Hyde Park, including interviews for his ongoing series of artist interviews. He goes to the gym each day. Then around 1 am, the night producer arrives. “We work for an hour on some research. Often, it's giving him things to transcribe, all kinds of book-related matters. Then, I go to bed, and he continues to work until 7 am. By the time I get up in the morning, lots of things are done, and I can continue to work and pick up on the threads. So, it never stops.”
Another ritual in Hans’ life is to purchase a book a day – purchasing things online if he is unable to get to a bookshop in life. Of his 360 books – which include catalogues and anthologies - 30 or so of these are prose such as The Age of Earthquakes or Ways of Curating. Obrist sees the production of his books as something beyond mere text. “A book is a kind of the exhibition. It's a curated space. The book object is actually a portable show - a portable museum.”
The first museum he ever went to also had a literary connection. It was the monastery library in St Gallen in Switzerland, where he saw a 10th-century codex written and illustrated by monks. “As a child, it was unbelievably deep, this expanse of time. It was an incredibly deep experience to be able to actually touch a book from the Middle Ages and connect,” Hans recalls.
Hans has been curating since he was a child. As a teenager, he founded a “nano-museum” in a little photo frame, which he kept in his pocket and would show to waiters, taxi driver, strangers and friends that he met. He had purchased the frame from a junk shop founded by artist Hans-Peter Feldman. “The little frame 2x3 inches and was sort of fake silver. It cost like £2.50. It was a diptych. I had lots of artists from Yoko Ono to Jonas Mekas to Gerhard Richter to Gabriel Orozco do exhibitions in that little frame.”
It was his Kitchen Show in his apartment that brought Obrist to the attention of the international art world. He had already been curating shows in vitrines on a mountainside devoted to Robert Walser and in his pocket. Obrist came to Paris to curate his first big show at the Musée de l'Art Moderne in 1993. It led to a far more notorious project. “I needed to find somewhere to stay, and I went to this really cheap hotel called the Carlton Palace. It was a very run-down small hotel in Montparnasse. I was reading every night in my hotel room a biography of the great Félix Fénéon, the curator, anarchist, critic and founder of magazines.” he explains. “There is this long story about him travelling and making the hotel room an exhibition space. I looked around my shabby hotel room and decide 'Wow, let's do that.' He created an evolving show with artists like Sarah Lucas, Maurizio Cattelan and John Armleader. By the end, there was a line of 300 people waiting to visit his hotel room.
He has been the director of the Serpentine gallery since 2005, creating an ever-innovative programme, often exploring technology including AI artworks with Ian Cheng, Pierre Huyghe and this Spring Hito Steyerl. The museum has an ongoing collaboration with Google Lab and the Google Cultural Institute. His approach Instagram is also inventive. (HUO has 250k followers). After artist Ryan Trecartin signed him up, he dived in. His initial idea was to document studio visits but this made artists uncomfortable. He didn’t want the cliché of travelling. So instead he created a ritual where he would ask all the artists he met to write a message, documenting handwriting which itself is a dying art. It doesn't get more intimate and accessible than an art project that lives in your audience’s pocket.
What makes Hans so exciting to meet, read and see is his unending sense of enthusiasm and interest in art, science, culture and the world around him. For him, that means collaboration – something at the heart of exhibition making. “I grew up as a single child in Switzerland and that's a rather solitary experience. You have the claustrophobia of the mountains. You don't see the sea. You don't have sisters and brothers. I've always had an urge to connect. I also believe that if you want to address the complexity of today and address the big topics and the big themes or big problems of the 21st century, I just think that they're so immense that it needs a pooling of knowledge.”
By Francesca Gavin for Semaine.
Photography by Dusan Szokolovics.